Part III of the Grad School Process by Yiyang Li

Note: PGP has learned that Yiyang will be attending Stanford in the Fall! Congratulations!

In the final
of my 3-part post on grad school, I'll talk about the Statement of Purpose, and
share some of my final thoughts about the graduate school process. 

Statement of Purpose:
This is generally a "brief, concise" statement that ties together your past
experiences, graduate school research interests, and career plans. The statement
of purpose (SoP) is not the warm, fuzzy, life-story essay you wrote for
college; rather, it is your chance to describe your past experiences and show
why graduate school is the logical continuation of your intended career plan.

Your past research experiences should comprise the bulk of
the SoP; remember that you are being evaluated on research aptitude, which you
show through your past experiences. Mention any significant results,
publications, or conference presentations from your research. Unless they're
significant, do not talk too much about coursework, community service, or
extracurricular activities; the exception is if you did a significant
independent project for a course (like SCOPE or OSS). Don't talk about stuff
you did before college (unless you did research in high school). In the end,
spend 1-2 paragraphs talking about the intended graduate school, including
which professors you might be interested in working with, and 1-2 paragraphs
about your intended career plan. If you think you might want to be a professor,
this could be a good place to mention any teaching experience (but not too
much; a PhD is a research degree).

Unlike your college essays, the SoP does not have to be very
school-specific. Just make sure your research interests are consistent with
research at the target graduate school. However, try to have some connection
between your past experiences and why you want to attend this school. For
example, you can wrap up your past research section by discussing the conference
you attend, and then talk about how you also listened to an awesome presentation by a professor
at that school. I wrote a literature review for my Olin Self Study; on my SoP,
I talked about how reading professor X and Y's papers motivated my decision to
apply for that school. Having some kind of link helps differentiate you from
the other applicants who just looked at their website.

Make sure your essay flows. You should have other people
read through it (Olin writing tutors are great), but one tool I found helpful
was Adobe's Read out Loud Feature. You can hear exactly how your essay sounds
and make changes accordingly.

One thing you do not want to do is propose a research
project. You want to make your research interests somewhat broad to ensure
there are several professors working in that field, but narrow enough to show
that you have a clear goal. I primarily applied for programs in Materials
Science and Engineering, and I said I was interested something broad like
"nanoelectronic materials and devices," not something specific like "optical
resonators in thin-film solar cells." Make sure there are a couple professors who do research in the area
you are interested in. Professors can only hire students to do projects they
have grant money for, so don't make your field too specific.

I included some photos of my projects in my essays. They
could help your application stand out, but if you don't have good photos do not
worry about it.

You can view a copy of my successful UC Santa Barbara essay at
http://dl.dropbox.com/u/6645/ucsb_sop.pdf  Mine was
chronological, which I thought worked pretty well.

Interviews: You
may have phone or on-campus interviews, especially if you apply for programs in
biosciences or bioengineering. I did not interview for any of the programs I
applied for, so I'm not a good resource to talk to about interviews; you can also
go to PGP for advice. We will have a guest post on interviews by an applicant
in bioengineering.

I Got Accepted: Now
What?
If you get an offer, most schools will pay for you to go visit them.
You'll be put in a nice hotel, fed lots of good food, and have plenty of time
to know the program. Talk to the professors about research interests and gauge
their personality; it may also be a time to line up a research assistantship.
More importantly, however, talk to the grad students. Ask them out their
experiences, and which professors are nice and which ones to avoid. They are
usually brutally honest, if slightly on the rosier side. Make sure there are a
couple advisors with funding that you will feel comfortable working with, both
in terms of research fit and personality/working style. Otherwise, just get a
feel for the school: you'll be spending the next 5-6 years of your life here;
make sure you think you will be able to enjoy that time.

Final Thoughts:

I hope these
posts have been helpful if you decide to apply for graduate school. As a final
word, I urge you to not stress too much. Ask your Olin professors and PGP to
suggest schools to apply to based on your academic and research record. Let
your professors and PGP know as soon as possible that you are thinking about
applying for graduate school; the earlier you start, the better.

Feel free to contact me at any time, at yiyang.li@students.olin.edu  or, if after May, Lyiyang@gmail.com , if you
want to talk about anything related to graduate school, as well as any feedback
you have about this blogpost.

Resources:

There are
plenty of resources
on how to get into graduate school. I listed my two
favorite ones:

"Advice on Applying to PhD Programs in Science and
Engineering," by Philip Guo, a Stanford Graduate Student http://www.stanford.edu/~pgbovine/grad-school-app-tips.htm

"Applying
to PhD Programs in Computer Science," by Mor Harchol-Balter's. It's written by
a CS professor, but I think the advice is useful for all science and
engineering graduate schools. http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~harchol/gradschooltalk.pdf

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